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Funerals/Body temperature


Cynthia, I have a somewhat strange question. The daughter of a friend recently died and her mother is really determined to understand the following: You can rub just about anything between your hands and the friction will cause a flow of electrons, resulting in warmth, or at least an increase in temperature. Also, most things will eventually have the ambient temperature of its environment. At the funeral home, my friend held and rubbed her daughter's hand steadily for almost 2 hrs. The entire time, her daughter's hand remained cold. Why? The only possible explanation I could give her was that it might have been some kind of reaction of embalming fluid. Your thoughts on the odd subject are appreciated.

Hi Ed,

I don't know the answer to this question and, like you, can only speculate.

Since the topic of hot-and-cold was a favorite childhood one with my scientist-father always working to teach his brood how to think, I'll take a similar stab try at it with this one. In my youthful dinnertime conversations, the points would have been laid out this way:

1) there is no such thing as 'cold' - the 'thing' is heat, an affect of excited molecules in the infrared range. Cold is the absence of heat, and through the action of conduction the heat of warmer things is transferred to the 'heat/energy-vacancy' of cooler things (in the absence of an insulating barrier), acting as a kind of equalizer over time - i.e., warm things transfer their heat "down" the energy gradient to cooler things until the temperatures at the point of contact are relatively the same.

2) At death, the energy generating engines of the body begin to grind to a halt, and so does the infrared production, causing the body to cool. The temperature of the body begins to drop all over, and warmth is lost to the air through the total skin surface that's exposed to anything of a lower temperature, transferred through .

3) The surface area of your friend's hand was a lot smaller than the total surface area of her daughter's cooling body. My guess is that the total amount of heat escaping her daughter's body was much greater than the amount of heat her hand was able to transmit, such that all of the heat that passed into the hand was instantly distributed to the rest of the body and so not detectable.

At this point, brother pipes up in the family debate:

"This might make sense if she'd just died; but she'd been embalmed so all the heat had left the body through the flushing of cold fluids into and through and out of the system, so it seems like some heat might show up after two hours of friction" ---

I'd pick it up:

4) This just reinforces the theory -- the embalming (and certainly refrigeration, that generally takes place before embalming and immediately after death) quickly reduced the body's temperature to well-below normal, AND it replaced mass (like organs) that holds heat longer with watery fluid that doesn't hold heat as well, so there was an even greater temperature gradient.

Additionally, things that are 70 degrees can feel cool to the touch of a 98.6 degree hand, because the hand feels the differential, not the temperature, so even if she did succeed in warming the area a little, the warmth may not have been detectable.

5) Given this, I'd say the body's absorptive mass (soaking up any heat) was so great, and the temperature differential so large, that that - coupled with the skin area available to the heat to escape once she'd warmed it - made it impossible for her hand to warm an entire body under the laws of normal physics.

An 1884 medical text says "...that some mysterious process of heat regulation still is active within the dead body may be seen from the fact that no matter what the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere, the surface of the body will go on decreasing its own temperature until the state of rigidity is ended and active decomposition commences"


So, there are probably deeper mysteries here that I'm not equipped to explore or explain. It would be interesting to know whether or not the researcher above had engaged in a friction/rubbing experiment.

All that said, Mom's heat energy DID transfer INTO her daughter's body, and if we could have put some dye on the electrons she'd excited, electrons excited by it flowed at least some distance, and may have even reached her daughter's head and her heart! :-) Perhaps there's some comfort there. If I were in her shoes, that's what I'd be imagining, at any rate.

So, that's my conjecture --- hope it helped!



"If it's the last thing you do!"  


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Cynthia Beal


Typical questions include 1) Where can I go for a natural burial? 2) What types of coffins, urns and other "packaging" are best for natural decomposition? 3)How do I plan for a natural funeral? 4) Do I have to be embalmed? and other questions in this vein. I'm available to answer general consumer questions about natural burial, home and natural funerals, and sustainable cemetery management. I answer questions about general cemetery matters, and offer suggestions about how to deal with remains, cremated or buried, interment rights, rules for cemeteries and plot owners, covering conventional as well as alternative options. I also answer questions from professionals, home funeral guides, and family members about how to manage a natural funeral either in the mortuary or at the home, how to best use natural coffins and urns, and how to convert cemeteries to natural, sustainable practices. I will answer questions from volunteer cemetery managers about how to offer natural burial in their rural, Pioneer, or non-profit cemeteries. If I don't know an answer I'll refer the questioner to someone who does. DISCLAIMER -- I am a certified pre-need sales person in the State of Oregon. I am not a licensed attorney, tax adviser, estate planner, funeral director, embalmer, accountant, public official, or any other professional that may be associated with issues the question brings up and any answers I provide should not be relied upon if such expertise is required by the asker (as per the All Expert suggestion). I provide my own personal opinions, based on my experience in business, Nature and its systems, and with human beings after 55 years of life on the planet.


Natural burial and sustainable cemetery management experience: I'm the founder of the Natural Burial Company and a member of the Cemetery Association of Oregon. Over 25 years in the natural products industry, and over a decade of running the Natural Burial Company, founded in 2004. I've done some consulting for existing and start-up natural cemetery operations. I'm currently an instructor at Oregon State University, facilitating the creation of a program in sustainable cemetery management and stimulating research in cemetery-oriented processes and functions, and I own two historic cemeteries the feature natural burial, based in Oregon.

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American Cemetery Magazine; Funeral Business Advisor; Real Goods Source Book; American Funeral Director Magazine, etc.

There is no degree in natural burials or funerals, and no accredited education provided for sustainable cemetery management. We're developing a program at Oregon State University but it hasn't fully launched yet.

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